#QueerBlogWed: On the Other Side of the Mask Freebie Story

On February 23, 2022, P.T. Wyant posted a Wednesday Words prompt at ptwyant.com. It involved a hat, a gemstone, and a musical.

It’s been entirely too long since I spent any time with my surreal steampunk Work in Progress, On the Other Side of the Mask. Plus it was an opportunity to pretend Aissa and Polyxena, my rejected romantic myth, had become a musical. 🙂

“Here.” He dropped a small hard gemstone in my hat with one languid pale hand, almost a doll’s. Innocuous, perfect, and vinyl. “You do lament with such fetching sweetness.”

Sweet. Not a word often associated with me. Shelley with his upturned freckled nose and wavy strawberry-blond curls was the songbird usually accused of sweetness. 

Not that I was a church songbird. Not at the moment. I was breaking choir rules, taking flight to the streets in the park where the pale lords roamed and the good citizens of Paradise hurried home before the last light of the sun vanished in all its bloody glory. 

This tall, slender man might have been a pale lord with his jaunty purple frock coat and a top hat with a matching ribbon wrapped around it. Only he didn’t move with the same predatory grace, much as he tried. There was a jerky hesitance to his arm, disturbing his attempted elegance. His face had a poppet’s prettiness in its lack of lines and cupid’s bow, but his eyes were a brilliant, mocking sapphire. 

I raised my chin, looked him boldly in the eye. “This is the first time I’ve heard Troile’s Defiance referred to as sweet.”

Troile’s Defiance?” A tiny smile touched his lips. So he was capable of human expression after all. “What’s that?”

“It’s part of Aissa and Polyxena.” I offered him a smile of my own, aware of the smouldering power of my eyes, almost like a pale lord’s. “A musical from the outside world.” 

“Should I have heard of it?” He cocked his head to one side in teasing mockery. 

“Few have. The author wasn’t well known. I’m not sure if it was ever performed.” I tilted my own head, curls brushing the nape of my neck. “Troile is a young prince of Troy who falls in love with the mightiest of an army of Achaen invaders, laying siege to his city.”

“I’ve heard of Troile. I’ve heard of Achille, this mighty invader, and the siege of Troy.” He lifted a finger, drawing attention to the lavender paint upon his nail. 

An affectation. No pale lord needed to tint his nails. The Goddess smiling over Paradise blessed her chosen guardians her moonlight sheen, gleaming in various unearthy colors in their eyes and nails, capable of growing into knife-long weapons at will. 

“Most stories claim it was Patrocles, another Achaen whom Achille loved.” He examined his nail with an almost prissy fusiness. “That Troile was simply a boy he fancied and ravaged. That Achille much preferred Troile’s twin sister, Polyxena.”

“In Aissa and Polyxena, Troile and Polyxena were one and the same.” I smiled, reassured by this petty vanity. “Troile met Achille when he was dressed in women’s clothing, pretending to be a maiden called Aissa, trying to avoid the war in Troy. They fell in love. Troile played the part of Polyxena in order to meet Achille in secret, right on the battlefield.”  

“Love in veiled disguise, how charming.” The stranger seemed more amused than charmed. “The way you sang it sounded more like you were challenging Death himself.”

“Achille just took a poisoned arrow, dying in Polyxena’s arms.” I wrapped my arms around myself, trying not to shudder. It was only too easy to imagine Shelley struggling to breathe as I struggled to hold onto him. “Troile defies Death, vowing to enter his realm and steal Achille, his Aissa back.”

“Quite the classical concept, veiled in a new form.” My odd patron looked me up and down. “Are you sure you’re not making it up, little songbird? Or did you snatch the score from this tune, hidden within the church archives?”

“You know who I am.” I backed up a step, behind the hat as if it could somehow protect me from this recognition. “Why did you give me a gem? Why didn’t you report me for singing outside the church?”

Or worse. I suspected far worse happened to songbirds in Paradise who dared to raise their voices outside the holy cage. Too many of us who took flight were never seen again, never mentioned. Their empty cots were quickly filled by new wards of the city. 

“As I said, I enjoyed the sweet defiance of your song…Byron.” He fixed those wonderful blue eyes upon me. “You’d best run along home with your hat and your forbidden earnings, lest someone less tolerant recognizes you.”

Keeping my eyes fixed upon him, I swept up the hat, clutching it to my chest, but I didn’t run. I should have run, but my boldness always got the better of me. Even when I shouldn’t.

“May I ask whom my tolerant patron is?” I lowered my eyelashes, aware I was flirting with more than just him, but my own limited liberty. 

Choir songbirds were confined by law to the church grounds. Straying to the park to play for pennies (and the occassional gem) was forbidden. I shouldn’t be here. 

I did a lot of things I shouldn’t. A rebel spirit beat within my breast, one which began to cry out even since I chose the name Byron for myself. It was disrespectful to the poet who’d used it in the world outside not to nurse one. 

“Oh, I am only Nathaniel, a humble servant of your tolerant patron.” The young man made a tiny bow. “He is known as Lord Ruthvyn. You’ll be hearing from him, Byron.” He allowed his smile to grow into something seductive and sinister. “You’ll be hearing from him very soon.” 

This promise was enough to quell my boldness. I turned and ran, putting as much distance between myself and Nathaniel, myself and his mysterious master as he could, knowing it wouldn’t be far enough.

You couldn’t run from a pale lord. Not in Paradise.

This didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try. 

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S is for Shelley

Three sources came together to create me.

One was our scribbler reading a collection of poems by the poet Shelley, followed by a couple of biographies. She was not only enchanted by both, but struck Shelley’s unreasoning fear of his father, a mystery which was never explained. She was also struck by Lord Godwin’s comment about the poet, “Ah, but he is beautiful! A pity he is evil!” Or something very similar to that. 

An interesting comment to make about the man who ran off with his daughter, a man who often came to his rescue when Lord Godwin was in debt. How complex emotions can be, even about those who are a danger to us…or our salvation. 

The residents of Paradise bow their heads every day to pale lords who drink their blood and life in the service of their Goddess. We’re expected to obey, but we’re terrified. Byron and I are rebels, regarded as evil, yet the pale lords covet us for our spirits, our creativity, the beauty they feel they can cultivate in us. Lord Ruthvyn seeks to cage us for all of these reasons in On the Other Side of the Mask. I don’t think he can forgive Byron or myself for the bond we’ve formed with each other, even as he drinks in our emotions, the sight of us. Perhaps we remind him of something he himself once lost. 

The legend of Shelley reached even me, a poor orphan who belonged our Lady of Paradise’s choir. The only thing I ever had was the right to choose my own name. I chose to be Shelley, to echo his rebel song in Paradise. The rebel song Byron and I sing together was inspired by one of his poems. We both choose our names to imbue some of the spirit of those who’d carried them before. 

The second source for me was a roleplaying game in which humans were kidnapped by the fae, trapped in their surreal world; escaping to find they were no longer human. They’d imbued some of the mad beauty of the cage they’d been imprisoned within. They could never escape, not completely. They could never know when they would be recaptured. 

This inspired our scribbler’s idea for Paradise, the enclosed city ruled by pale lords no one could escape. It also inspired Lord Ruthvyn’s estate, its labyrithine ways, its living art. The way reality itself doesn’t seem entirely solid on his grounds. Byron and I are not the first caged “songbirds” his lordship has kept in his home. The mystery of what happened to the others, a fate Byron and I could share is one of the mysteries we confront in On the Other Side of the Mask. 

The third source is what our scribbler read of Lord Ruthven in her world and the relationship he had with the poet Lord Byron. Byron loathed Ruthven, yet the two lords are often linked together due to Dr. Polidori’s The Vampyre. This inspired out host, a boy once very much like my Byron and myself. Only this boy lost his song. He seeks to find it again in Byron and myself. Who knows how many others he tried to find it in? Perhaps that song is the key to Lord Ruthvyn’s lost soul. Perhaps it is the key to opening the Gates of the Paradise we are trapped within. I hope so. Pray that Byron and I find a solution in our story. We’ve lingered in limbo for far too long.